To survive in the world, most of us become quite sophisticated at self-motivation.We become self-critical, able to tell ourselves off for failing or not working hard enough. And we use this self-criticism as a way to put the pressure on ourselves, to achieve our goals.
But when does self-criticism turn into self-flagellation? Beating ourselves up, or criticising ourselves can be the slippery road to burn out, hostility toward others, depression and under performance. It’s not uncommon to have negative self-talk going on in our mind, to be focused on mistakes or on the ways others are ‘better’.
In contrast to self-criticism, self‐compassion is associated with decreased stress and depression, and a better quality of life.
Even so, most of us are fairly suspicious of self-compassion – possibly because it appears on the surface to be linked to self-pity, or laziness or playing the victim, to letting go of responsibility, or of giving ourselves permission to under-achieve. All things we wish to avoid!
Is self-compassion just a ‘get out of jail free card’?
We often think of self-compassion as weak, yet, the research tells us a different story. When we look at work by Neff, Leary or Mosewich, they consistently find that the practice of self-compassion leads to taking more, not less responsibility for our actions. In fact, many studies find that people high in self-compassion have high standards and work hard. When we cultivate self-compassion, the research suggests we are less likely to blame other people, or blame external factors for our mistakes.
Neff’s studies into self-compassion typically find that people with high self-compassion have a healthy self-esteem. That means they can hold onto their sense of self-worth even when things go wrong. This link between self-compassion and self-esteem means that self-compassionate people are more likely to feel guilt – a sense of remorse and the desire to make amends. And they are less likely to feel shame, a negative evaluation of their worth as a person. The research even finds that they are more likely to apologise!
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion as defined by Neff in the academic literature, covers three aspects:
- Mindfulness – being present
- Common humanity – recognising that, as humans, each of us experiences pain, sadness, love and joy. It means recognising that “pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of the shared human experience” (Neff, Rude & Kirkpatrick, 2007).
It seems simple. We may already strive to be compassionate to others. But we rarely consider being compassionate to ourselves.
To find self-compassion, try noticing and changing the way you speak to yourself – talk to yourself the way you would speak to a friend you loved. With compassion and gentle advice, minus the cutting criticism. With kindness rather than harsh words.
Notice if it helps you increase your own mental wellbeing to become more self compassionate. Pay attention to find out if being less hard on yourself leads to having a greater ability to handle your emotions, to managing challenges, and building healthy self-esteem.